A flag that’s dividing more than uniting
Twenty years after independence, Kyrgyzstan debating new symbol
BISHKEK, KYRGYZSTAN t’s blood red with a yellow sunburst in the center that’s covered by the top opening of a yurt — and it’s the focus of fierce debate in this Central Asian nation. Kyrgyzstan’s flag has flown for 20 years since the country’s independence from the former Soviet Union — a tangible representation of the people’s history, heritage and pride, full of symbolism and meaning. There’s the rub. “State symbols are sacred for us, protected by law, and never should be the object of argument and discord,” says Abdyrahman Mamataliev, who heads a commission that is examining the issue of changing the flag.
“But now there are a lot of disputes. Part of the population doesn’t . . . accept the flag. We need a flag that the whole nation can unite under, a flag we can be proud of.”
Part of the debate centers on what the flag’s symbols mean.
The crossed lines over the yellow sunburst represent the view through a tunduk, the chimneylike opening in the traditional tent known as a yurt.
The flaming yellow sun and red background are symbols of Manas, an ancient warrior hero of Kyrgyz legend who fought off foreign invaders and then conquered neighboring tribes.
Home, light and the blood of the people — symbols for these ideals can be seen in many flags, not just Kyrgyzstan’s. But some Kyrgyz citizens see more in the symbols than others.
For playwright Mar Baygiev, symbols relating to Manas are inappropriate for modern Kyrgyzstan — a nation of 5.5 million people that includes Uzbeks, Uighurs, Dongans and other ethnic groups conquered by the epic hero.
“Why is it not blue sky but blood that is seen through the tunduk?” says Mr. Baygiev, a member of the flag-changing commission. “It is said that Manas had a red flag, but that was his personal battle flag for wartime, not a national one.”
He also is no fan of the presidential emblem, which depicts a mountain range on the back of an eagle. “And the bird on the insignia looks more like a chicken than an eagle,” he says.
Some critics say the flag’s red field represents communism and the yellow looks like a sunflower, which is regarded as a symbol of dependence because the plant turns toward the sun as it moves across the sky — a visual reminder of Kyrgyzstan’s historical dependence on Russia.
Others take issue with the flag’s crimson background and the turbulent, if not violent, history it represents.
Since the flag was first unfurled in 1991 after the country shook off Soviet rule, Kyrgyzstan has seen two presidents overthrown in popular uprisings: Askar Akayev, who was deposed in 2005’s Tulip Revolution after having led the country since 1990, and his successor, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was toppled in 2010.
Shortly after Mr. Bakiyev’s ouster, violent clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the southern province of Osh left hundreds dead.
“The present red flag of the country is associated with the blood of many people,” says Karganbek Samakov, a parliamentary leader who submitted a bill on changing the flag last March. “The tunduk is surrounded by rays of the sun, but they look like flames, as if the country is embraced by fire.”
Mr. Samakov even suggests the symbols may have contributed to unrest in Kyrgyzstan.
With a new, democratically elected government in place and hopes for a more stable future, those campaigning for a new flag say it would help make a break with the past.
Nonetheless, some see the country’s checkered history as all the more reason to keep the current flag.
“Under this flag, our sportsmen have been victorious at international tournaments,” says Renat Samudinov, leader of political youth group Alash Ordo. “As for the two revolutions, young people have demonstrated and even lost their lives for this flag.”
Mr. Samudinov says he is infuriated by the “superstition” of government leaders who apparently are obsessed with symbols.
“It is completely absurd,” he says. “The problem is in the minds of these governors. They don’t understand the meaning of governing a country.”
The flag-changing commission consists of 15 parliamentary leaders from across the political spectrum, as well as artists, scientists, writers, designers and historians. They are aiming to create a list of five designs and make a final decision on altering the flag this spring.
Bishkek businessman Kunay Medethan has submitted his own design, a light-blue background with a mountain range in white — similar to the current presidential emblem, minus the eagle.
“Using the mountains on a blue background could bring new perception of our country and raise fresh interest from tourists and investors,” Mr. Medethan says.
Aside from disputes over the flag’s symbolism, some parliamentary leaders have estimated the cost of the project at about $5 million, which they say is an unnecessary expense for a country struggling to reduce its budget deficit.
Mr. Mamataliev puts the cost at closer to $70,000, saying that some of that amount would be offset by revenue from sales of the new flag.
Yet for some Kyrgyz citizens, the uproar over the flag is distracting from the country’s more pressing issues.
“There are countries that are developing fine despite having red flags,” says Nurlan Sazykov, a civil servant in Bishkek. “They don’t have wars, revolutions or instability just because of the color of their flag.”
Still he says there are valid arguments for changing the flag’s design, as communist ideology still dominates the political system.
“Personally, I think that in future the red flag could be changed, but not now when we have a lot of other problems,” he says. “Let’s raise this issue in five years, when, as the powers that be assure us, the country will be more stable.”